Metadata dreams adrift

"The Homeland Security Department's cross-cutting mission will not be successful without cross-cutting IT. ... the way you get that is with a strong CIO." | Mike Daconta

Rick Steele

With Daconta gone from DHS, info-sharing hangs in balance

Shortly after joining the Homeland Security Department in August 2004 as metadata program manager, Michael Daconta opened a talk to a group of IT professionals with his characteristic high energy: "High five! XML has won!"


He was celebrating the choice of Extensible Markup Language to carry out DHS' information-sharing mission, crucial in its fight against terrorism.

Just four months later, Daconta and Justice Department officials introduced, to broad acclaim, their National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) set of XML schemas for cross-agency data sharing.


But Daconta's XML plans soon ran into obstacles. Despite his widely praised leadership in XML and metadata modeling, Congress in mid-2005 declined to fund the Metadata Center of Excellence that he headed. A Senate committee decided that metadata development at DHS ought to continue but should be folded into general operations of the chief information officer, even though Daconta reported to the CIO.

In December 2005, Daconta left DHS and joined consulting firm Oberon Associates Inc. in Manassas, Va. His temporary replacement at DHS is Brad Eyre, detailed from the Coast Guard.

Daconta's departure has stirred debate about the future of metadata and XML modeling for information-sharing at the agency. The greatest impediment to the technology's success, according to Daconta and other experts, is that responsibility for metadata and XML programs for information-sharing continues to be dispersed throughout DHS: in the CIO's office, Science and Technology Directorate's Office of Interoperability and Compatibility, and Preparedness Directorate and Policy Office.


ONE MAN, MANY OBSTACLES

"I'm sorry Mike Daconta left DHS, because he is a very bright, dynamic, talented guy. What he accomplished was to get the NIEM started and the framework established," said Matt Walton, chairman of the Emergency Interoperability Consortium, an advocacy group of industry and public safety agencies.

But Daconta on his own didn't have authority to unify the separate metadata and XML efforts under way to develop interoperable systems for sharing data across multiple platforms, Walton said.

"The interoperability issue is vast, and the department has been struggling to meet a very large requirement," Walton said. "On paper, the Office of Interoperability and Compatibility has the responsibility, but so do multiple other offices at DHS," including Daconta's, Walton said. In addition, the Preparedness Directorate controls grant funding for interoperability projects at state and local agencies.

To solve data incompatibility problems and share data, "metadata is the best solution available in the computer world," said David Connelly, president of Open Applications Group Inc., a non-profit IT industry group specializing in metadata. "But someone at DHS needs to be given the responsibility to look at the overarching problem with a little more vigor."

Daconta agreed that, despite the inferences to be drawn from his former title, DHS has a lack of clear authority for metadata development. For example, Science and Technology sets technical standards in general, but the CIO's office oversees the IT architecture and implementations.

"The roles overlap, and they need to be deconflicted," Daconta told Washington Technology, suggesting that the highest levels at DHS would have to address the policy issues involved. He favors a powerful CIO's office.

"The Homeland Security Department's cross-cutting mission will not be successful without cross-cutting IT," he said. "The way you get that is with a strong CIO."

At DHS, however, the inspector general in a December 2005 report judged that the CIO does not have enough authority to integrate even basic enterprise IT systems at the department.


Scott Charbo, DHS' CIO, said he has adequate authority. "I'm not focused on organizational change. I'm focused on getting things done," he said.
The CIO's office is committed to continuing metadata efforts, Charbo said. "It is alive and will be redirected," he said. "I can support the overhead and staff it."
However, Charbo said, there is no need for a distinct metadata center of excellence, and many metadata initiatives throughout DHS are being developed within other programs.


HURDLES ABOUND

More organizational obstacles loom above the CIO level, Daconta said.

"The CIOs at DHS are all working well together. The problem is what you do when disagreements occur," Daconta said, noting that differences of opinion sometimes arise about the rate of adoption of various platforms and the pace of changes.

Using XML concepts throughout DHS could have broad applications in making data "person-centric," and in enabling information-sharing across the 22 agencies and with state and local agencies nationwide, Daconta said.

Eventually, NIEM could be expanded and used in the Homeland Security Information Network connecting to local agencies, and in screening programs and watch lists. To do that, Daconta said, "there needs to be a long-term integration strategy."

That includes bringing together XML standards for information-sharing being developed at DHS and elsewhere, and integrating them into NIEM, which is based on the Global Justice XML model created by the law enforcement community.

Walton's consortium, for example, worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Management program to develop the Common Alerting Protocol, an XML standard for messaging. Today, the Common Alerting Protocol standard is used by the National Weather Service, U.S. Geological Survey and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Information Network.
The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards approved an updated version in November 2005.

The Common Alerting Protocol, NIEM and other standards eventually will have to be compatible with each other, Walton said. Discussion is taking place among emergency management, transportation, health care and other groups, including DHS officials, but it is in early stages. "Ultimately, there needs to be a higher-level structure," Walton said.

The question remains if DHS is playing a strong leadership role in coordinating the metadata needed for all this interoperability and information-sharing.


Asked whether metadata is getting enough attention at DHS, the assessments are blunt.

"I haven't seen much traction for metadata at DHS, to be honest," said Connelly of the Open Applications Group.

At the Emergency Interoperability Consortium, Walton was equally pointed: "There still is a significant challenge, and DHS has its hands full," he said. "At the end of the day, interoperability will have to be addressed as a policy issue and articulated clearly from the secretary on down."


Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

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